Mike Finnerty made a very good point about the Dublin game on the Mayo News football podcast during the week where he said that it was a match which, from our perspective, had been crying out for Alan Dillon. I’m not sure if Johnno listened into the podcast at any stage in the last few days but if he did the point certainly wasn’t lost on him, with the globetrotting Ballintubber man named at top-of-the-left for this evening’s NFL match with Derry in Celtic Park. Alan proceeded to have a significant influence on how this crunch NFL meeting played out, with his guile and experience a major factor in our first win in Oak Leaf territory since February 1984 and, I think, our first ever win over them in the Bogside.
I did give some consideration about travelling North for this one but work had been wall-to-wall all week and I had to go down the country again yesterday, with plenty of stuff on up here today so it didn’t really suit. Memories of that long and very unhappy trek up to Celtic Park that I’d undertaken back in July 2007 were probably still lurking in some dark recess of my mind as well and so it was an easy enough decision to make to sit this one out.
Bad decision. Fair play to PJ: he travelled up from the hallowed sod earlier today and so was there to see the lads record a truly famous victory. I suppose that, in time, the numbers claiming to have been there will be close in size to those who swear they saw U2 play in the Dandelion market but I can vouch for the fact that PJ was indeed there and I reckon he’ll have quite an enjoyable night out in the walled city tonight as a result.
According to the lads on Midwest, there was a very small Mayo following in Celtic Park tonight but, then again, the home support was nothing to write home about either, with less than a thousand punters making their way through the stiles for what you’d think should have been an attractive enough fixture. But I’m in no position to say who should or shouldn’t have been there seeing as I didn’t make it to the game myself.
The first piece of information we were all waiting on was, of course, the teamsheet and when it finally appeared, it showed three changes from last weekend. Liam O’Malley came in for the now long-term injury absentee Peadar Gardiner, Kieran Conroy got a welcome start at midfield in place of Ronan McGarrity (who apparently failed a pre-match fitness test so there can’t be a whole load wrong with him) and Alan Dillon replaced the rested U21 player Alan Freeman at corner forward. Liam immediately swapped places with Donie Vaughan who took up position at left half-back with Kevin McLoughlin on the right wing.
I guess we would all have expected the home side to come at us straight away but instead we were the ones out of the traps fast, with three points on the board before they got going. Alan Dillon marked his return by tapping over a close-in free after Enda Varley was fouled, the Garrymore man then got one from play – after David Clarke had saved from Eoin Bradley at the other end – and Enda followed this up with another point from play, this time firing over despite the close attention of three Derry backs.
It was nine minutes before Derry finally opened their account but when they got going, they reeled us in quickly, with a free from Lee Moore and two huge points from play, the first from Eoin Bradley and the second from Gerard O’Kane. The home side almost went ahead when Fergal Doherty got a shot in but it came back off the post and our lads swept downfield, Trevor Mortimer ending a five-man move to edge us back in front. Four minutes later, Lee Moore pointed his second free to square it up again after Eoin Bradley had drawn the foul.
It was then that we moved to take a decisive hold on this game, starting with an Aidan O’Shea point, from a move started by big brother Seamie who fed Andy who, in turn, played in Aidan. Alan Dillon then got a free for what Billy Fitz was adamant had been a fair shoulder but Mark Lynch saw yellow for dissent and Dillon drew further groans from the home following by pointing the free.
Paddy Bradley got his opening point of the game just after to cut the deficit to a single point but we responded in dramatic fashion. Derry got pulled up for an open-handed pass (Billy Fitz was giving out shite about this rule on the radio but I’m a big fan of it, I have to admit) and although Dillon’s free didn’t have the distance, the Derry backline made a total hames of their attempt to clear it and Andy pounced to bury it in the net.
The home side tried to respond but a Paddy Bradley free fell short and when Trevor Howley broke up the next attack, the move ended with Kieran Conroy being fouled. Alan Dillon fired over the free to send us in a very unexpected but hugely welcome five to the good at the break.
Derry really needed a few quick scores on the resumption and Paddy Bradley’s free after three minutes was a help in this regard. Ger Cafferkey was given a yellow for the foul that led to the free and this prompted Johnno to call the Ballina man – who’d got a bit of a roasting from Eoin Bradley – ashore. Chris Barrett came in instead of him, with Keith Higgins moving across to chaperone the Derry dangerman.
We were obviously expecting a Derry onslaught but they clearly weren’t prepared for what we hit them with next. Enda Varley popped over a peach of a point from way out in the corner, the ball having reached there by way of an attempted shot from Trevor which had almost hit the corner flag. Then Dillon tore through the Derry defence, had a shot that didn’t come off but Aidan O’Shea was lurking in the square (which is an okay pastime under the new rules) and he connected with his fist to send us all of eight points clear.
With just ten minutes gone in the second half, this contest had now reached a crossroads: either Derry were going to try to battle their way back into it or we were going to beat them out the gate. Three points on the spin from them inside the next five minutes provided more than enough proof that a hiding wasn’t going to be on the agenda but a very welcome point just after from Chris Barrett showed equally clearly that we were in no mood to surrender fully the excellent position we’d got ourselves into.
Derry made us work for the win, though, with Paddy Bradley notching two more points and then shaving the post with a goal attempt. Mark Lynch then added another to cut the gap to three with just under a quarter of an hour still left to play.
Seamus O’Shea gave us some vital breathing space with a point, following good work by the tireless Andy Moran, but we then dropped deep, aiming to prevent at all costs the concession of a goal to the home side. The tactic worked, as Derry failed to add to their tally as the clock edged towards the end of normal time. With three minutes to go, Andy Moran lifted the siege with a point from play, after Trevor Mortimer opened the Derry defence with a glorious crossfield pass. Trevor restored our two-goal advantage soon after and although Eoin Bradley did manage to break through for a Derry goal deep in stoppage time, that score was literally the last kick of the game, a game we’d won a bit more comfortably than the scoreline suggested.
Coming on the back of such a frustrating afternoon last Sunday, tonight’s win was a superb result and the lads deserve great credit for the way that they shrugged off the disappointment of the defeat to Dublin to win in convincing fashion on a ground where Mayo have had such unhappy recent experiences.
From what both PJ and Billy Fitz said, the backs put in a fine evening’s work, with Keith and Donal Vaughan once more to the fore. The way that Ger Cafferkey got skinned will be a worry but the call to take him off was a good one and overall we coped well in that sector.
Tom Parsons and Kieran Conroy did okay at midfield, by all accounts, while Seamus O’Shea added to his now burgeoning reputation with another solid, hard-working display. Up front, it was the older heads who excelled, with Andy Moran, Trevor Mortimer and MOTM Alan Dillon to the fore. The young guns did alright too, though, with Enda Varley weighing in with three excellent points from play and Aidan O’Shea contributing a heartwarming 1-1.
We’ve now achieved our primary aim of securing our Division One status for next year. With the Dubs winning and Cork losing tonight, we’re back up to second in the table and can, perhaps, once more start to think a bit more expansively about this league campaign. A win down in Tralee next weekend could well be the acceleration we need to set us on the way to an NFL final and, perhaps, the chance to put the Dubs back in their box if we were to find ourselves up against them in that one. I’m getting ahead of myself, I know, but tonight’s uplifting win gives us the right, for now at least, to indulge in these kind of idle thoughts. Well done, lads, on what was by any measure a fine evening’s work.
MAYO: David Clarke; Donal Vaughan, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Liam O’Malley, Trevor Howley, Kevin McLoughlin; Tom Parsons, Kieran Conroy; Andy Moran (1-1), Seamus O’Shea (0-1), Trevor Mortimer (0-2); Enda Varley (0-3), Aidan O’Shea (1-1), Alan Dillon (0-3, frees). Sub: Chris Barrett (0-1) for Cafferkey.